There is a “Save My Scholarship” sign planted in the soil by the stone steps leading to the entrance of the St. Frances of Rome School in Cicero. Jazmin Dela Mora’s two daughters once climbed the steps of the west suburban Catholic school, and now so does her son, Matthew, who is in second grade there.
Yaileen, the eldest, is in her freshman year at Loyola University Chicago, and Dela Mora attributes her academic achievements to the Catholic education she received and her former teachers at St. Frances who helped her study for her college admission exams long after she graduated from the grammar school.
Over the past five years, a taxpayer-supported state scholarship program called Invest in Kids cut the tuition bill for her two daughters by thousands of dollars. This year, it is also helping Dela Mora shoulder Matthew’s, which is roughly $6,500 per year.
Some 9,700 students across the state received these scholarships last year, funded by Illinoisans who donate to authorized scholarship groups and receive a 75% tax credit in return. But lawmakers in Springfield did not renew the $75 million program once it expired in December, shaking up many schools and families like Dela Mora’s.
Critics of the 5-year-old program say it takes money that could go toward underfunded public schools and sends it to private schools that can discriminate. Advocates defend the program, saying it allows lower-income families to choose schools that are best for their children. They are aiming to try to revive the program in the spring legislative session, highlighting schools like St. Frances with large scholarship numbers to make their case for resuscitating Invest in Kids.
Caught in the middle are people like Dela Mora. She is now questioning how she will afford to pay full tuition costs this fall for her son and younger daughter, who is at Trinity High School in River Forest.
“The cost of Catholic schools is just very elevated,” Dela Mora said. “I still don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
The debate over taxpayer support for private schools
The program’s end is being felt most acutely by families in Dela Mora’s school community, which is coinciding with news of the closure of St. Frances, where her son goes, and St. Odilo Catholic School in the neighboring town of Berwyn. The Archdiocese of Chicago announced the closures last month, and they are slated for June.
Some 62% of the 168 students at St. Frances received a tax credit scholarship this school year. That’s up from just 13 students last year. St. Odilo saw a similar spike. Catholic School officials said the number rose dramatically because of an increase in donations to the schools last year ahead of the program’s slated end on Dec. 31.
In press releases and public statements, Catholic school officials attributed the closures of both schools to the end of the Invest in Kids program. But scholarship students accounted for just 8% of the student body a year ago, and Principal Phillip Jackson acknowledged that the school had been operating at a deficit of more than $200,000 for years. In addition, state data shows enrollment for St. Frances and St. Odilo especially has been on the decline for years. St. Odilo has only 131 students.
The closure of these two schools with declining enrollment follows a pattern of annual closures of Catholic schools that has been going on for decades. The students are being referred to other Catholic schools in Cicero and Berwyn.
Still, Jackson said the benefits of the program cannot be downplayed.
In the heavily working-class neighborhood of Cicero, Jackson said the program did exactly what it was meant to: Help Black and brown students go to private schools they otherwise couldn’t afford. State data shows 89% of St. Frances students last year came from families considered low income.
“I mean, who were the major recipients? The Black and brown students in the area,” Jackson said. “So why on earth are you trying to take that away from them?”
But critics disagree.
They say not all Invest In Kids students are from low-income families. They point to state data showing only about two-thirds of scholarship winners last year came from families earning $55,500 or less. To be eligible for an Invest In Kids scholarship last year, a family of four couldn’t make more than $79,500.
They also argue that religious schools like St. Frances are not inclusive.
“Many of the schools that have been taking vouchers discriminate against LGBTQ+ students,” said Cassie Creswell, the director of Illinois Families for Public Schools, an advocacy group.
Al Llorens, president of the Illinois Education Association, one of the state’s two major teachers unions, thinks the program should never have existed.
“Until you bring the public schools up to an adequate level of funding, I think it’s unconscionable to divert money away [from them],” Llorens said.
He said nothing stands in the way of people continuing to donate to the private schools of their choice, though “they don’t need a tax break to do that.”
Catholic school mom: “I feel like my hands are tied”
To mothers like Dela Mora, the talk from both sides of the heated debate is beside the point.
To her, the thought of not being able to give her youngest two children the opportunities she has given her eldest hurts.
The social worker spends her days helping other people solve their problems, which makes her see a cruel irony in the fact that she can’t seem to solve her own.
“That’s why it is disappointing,” Dela Mora said. “Because I help other people and I see how people live in poverty. And now that I need the help, I feel like my hands are tied.”
Reactions among parents are similar at the St. Nicholas Cathedral School in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.
Before St. Nicholas absorbed a wave of new students whose families fled the war in Ukraine, about one-third of its population, or 56 students, received tax credit scholarships. This year, it’s 96 students.
Principal Anna Cirilli said they accepted most refugee students with the help of the scholarship program. Those students have come to rely on the school, she said, because of its bilingual teachers and the haven it has offered them in a foreign country. Now that the program is set to end for students in June, St. Nicholas stands to lose dozens to public schools.
“We know that many of our families can’t pay the tuition,” Cirilli said. “So they’re nervous … And they’re waiting for assurance that we’re going to try to find a means for them to be able to attend the school.”
That lifeline may come from Springfield, where a handful of Chicago-area Democratic state representatives will push to revive the program with the backing of Republican colleagues.
Their proposed legislation could extend the program for five years. It would also reduce the tax credit amount and individual giving cap from $1 million to $500,000, sharpen the focus on lower-income students and shrink it to a $50 million program.
Though a chorus of critics denounce these efforts, parents like Dela Mora see it as their last hope.
Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.